Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Our Lady of the Holy Bug Repellant

Every year around December 8th, thousands of Paraguayans make a pilgrimage to Caacupe.
Paraguay is a predominantly catholic nation; by law their president must be catholic. Their current president was a bishop.

As such Paraguayans also have the prerequisite affection for the Virgin Mary, which yields may local variations. You may have heard about the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is the normal Virgin Mary celebrated due to her appearance to a man in Mexico.

In following with this tradition, Caacupe has its own Virgin of Caacupe. Go here if you´d like to read about the specifics.

Now the truth is that most Paraguayans can’t really tell you much of this back story. They do the pilgrimage out of respect for tradition. Some don’t even stay around for mass. They walk to the city, arrive, and then head bus. No, you don’t get bonus points in Heaven for walking back to your house.

However I have renamed the Virgin of Caacupe as Our Lady of the Holy Bug Repellant; during the pilgrimage I didn’t get bitten once. I know, me, the personal buffet of millions of little blood suckers developed some mystical shield for one night. It was beautiful. That’s the story book ending, now back to the beginning.

You have to do the Caacupe pilgrimage at some point; it is an unofficial requirement of Paraguayan citizenship and interestingly Peace Corps volunteer service as well. If you did the walk when you were twelve, you’ve fulfilled your duties and don’t have to walk again. However there are some families that make an annual journey out of it. The purists start walking from wherever they live in the country. Initially, after being inspired by Jim Carey’s Yes Men, I said yes to the 13 hour trip with some local purists who annually made the trip from their house. I’m happy to say that trip fell through. What can I say, I am not a purist, just a visitor. I’m too out of shape to go on 13-hour whims.

So my Peace Corps buddies and I all met together at a nearby city Ypacarai, 20k/12mi outside of Caacupe. Actually 3 of us had to go through Caacupe in order to get to Ypacarai in the first place, which felt a little silly, since we’d actually be backtracking on our pilgrimage. Anyway, we were told this would take us about 5 hours. We took 3.5!

Well at least half of us did. We initially started with about 10 people, but the group split between the group clearly descendents from the grandmas who power-walk around the mall [that’s the fast group for any of you who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing this suburban phenomenon] and the tranquilopa group who actually took the walk at a semi normal pace. I was in the first group, and for the record my grammy doesn’t walk around the mall, but she probably gets more exercise than I do at this point from her lengthy daily walks through neighborhoods.

We stopped for dinner at El Cucuruchu. I’m not sure about the spelling, but it sounds like the word for cockroach, la cucaracha. In spite of the possible name confusion, they have really good food. I bought a muffin to save for breakfast. After this quick rest, the power-walking decedents made our abuelitas proud by hauling it to try and make it to the midnight mass. Actually we got to the main plaza around 10:30pm, plenty of time to spare.

After staking out a spot on the plaza with a good view of the jumbotron screen set up in the back of the church, we sat for a bit, Angelique and I played a seemingly generous game of ‘No, seriously you take the trail mix’ aka ‘If you don’t get that bag away from me I’m going to eat the whole thing, so pleeeease take it’. Ugg, where are Nam or Rujie when I need them to keep me from getting more bootylicious off of peanuts, raisins, and chocolate pieces.

Anyway, Angelique, Melissa, and Angelique’s 2 Paraguayan friends when to look for t-shirts and to see if they could find Angelique’s family that she stayed with during training. Elmer and I diligently guarded the groups valuables and spot on the plaza…aka we fell asleep. Our lullaby was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth playing in English with Spanish subtitles at a nearby kiosk against trash, for recycling. I do wonder where that group was when we walked for 20 trash lined kilometers without seeing more than 1 or 2 trashcans.

I wasn’t actually able to sleep on the ground. Melissa had the foresight to bring a blanket, but that only softened the ground a little bit. Besides, I was too distracted by how surreal the experience was.

First, was able to get a seat on the way down to Caacupe, which is amazing in and of itself. The week of Caacupe until about Easter are the busiest bus times for Paraguay, unfortunately they are also the hottest. Carly was kind enough to recount last year’s stories of standing the entire 4-hour bus ride to Asuncion in sardine-esque conditions. Unexpectedly my bus to Caacupe decided to go no farther than that, which really upset the people who had paid to go all of the way to Asuncion. Fortunately I was able to catch a local bus to meet up with my posse in Ypacarai. While I waited for my party to arrive I watched large thunderheads pass overhead, but didn’t get more than a drizzle of rain which cleared up by the time we started walking. The rest of the evening/night had perfect weather, just cool enough to make our pace enjoyable, though I did wish for a light sweater once we settled down in the plaza. This is a very different experience from the boiling hot temperatures experienced by the volunteers who walked last year. The sky was clear and I was able to see the stars when the trees over the highway weren’t too thick. Everyone was in good spirits selling chipa, all using the same recorded voice ‘Chipa, Chipa, Rrrrrrica Chipa!!!’, snacks, drinks, etc. There were also plenty of people giving out free drinks, though I had brought along one of my Camel backs, which I conveniently realized fits perfectly into the pouch inside of my day-pack that is too shallow, and strangely shaped, to fit anything else. There were the standard religious trinkets, kitschy knick-knacks, t-shirts, sunglasses, hats, one kid trying to sell me a candle for 1mil, when everyone else was selling them for 500, then dropping the price to 2 for 1 mil… which is still just 500 per candle. There were some very entrepreneurial people setting up bathrooms on the side of the road… not port-a-potties mind you. They dug holes in the ground and then build a wooden frame surrounded with black tarps/trashbags for privacy. People who had actual bathrooms in their homes or businesses along the ruta rented them out for about 1 mil, some people even offered their showers. Many of the Paraguayans were wearing flip flops. We were amazed at how quickly some of the Paraguayans were walking, considering that one guy I know from my site was in serious pain after casually walking about 2 blocks with Carly and me when we took Luna out that evening. No one walks here unless they have to, they will use their moto to make even 1-2 block trips. So to see so many people out and about, sans motos, was astounding. Melissa commented that they should have something like this once a month, to help encourage people to be more physically active.

Then we got to Caacupe and headed for the plaza, which was pilgrim central. People sold mats and card board boxes to help soften the ground, people were curled up everywhere in small groups, home of the temporarily homeless.

I listened to Al Gore drone on for a while, waited with Elmer for our laggard group to catch up [they never did and ended up sleeping for a while at someone’s house, one of their friends, and catching the 6am mass], watch the policemen make their rounds, occasionally escorting people away, most people seemed to be in pretty good shape, though I did see one boy fall onto a mother who was rocking her child. His friends picked him up, woke him up and, calmly walked him away.

I guess that was the most remarkable thing…how calm everything was. Perhaps it was because it was the middle of the night and most people were tired from their several hour walk. But it was just amazing to see so many people, in such a small space making so little noise, so little movement, no rush, maybe taking a nap or just sitting talking quietly. Some catholic missionaries were out an about trying to convert people. One came over to Elmer and I starting with a completely inappropriate line of ‘I’m going to tell you something you’ve never heard before…standard Jesus love, sin, and forgiveness pitch. I’ll give the guy credit, he had a very nice and soothing voice, perfect for converting tired people on a plaza, if I would have been 5 years old, I would have asked him to read me a bed-time story to help me fall asleep. But come one honey, Christianity is the most popular religion in this have of half of the globe, hands down with no close seconds. And we’re in a country where Catholicism is state-sponsored. So started with the ‘I have something to tell you that you’ve never heard before…’ pitch is probably not the most accurate starting point. I also don’t understand why you think that spending time trying to convert people making a Catholic pilgrimage to Catholicism, since most people are Catholics already.

Actually another interesting occurrence in my site specifically is the presence of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Germany who have been sent specifically to try and convert the German speaking Mennonites…Except they are already Christians. Alas, I will never truly understand the whole Christian vs Christian conversion. Aren’t they all batting for the same team in the end?

Other than the interruption by my little soul saver, no one bothered us or made much of a fuss. As the plaza got more and more crowded people started tripping over my leg which I had extended into what became an informal walkway, I chose not to move it because it was the only way it could rest my leg with my knee in a comfortable position…and my leg was there before the walkway.

Our souvenir hunters got caught on the opposite side of the church when the midnight mass began and the crowd suddenly solidified. I caught bits and pieces of the mass on the jumbotron screen on the back of the church that I was facing. It seemed like someone was inserting little musical intermissions whenever the priests weren’t talking.

After mass, Angelique, Melissa, and the Paraguayans made it back, with their t-shirts. We decided to find buses to take us home and ended up finding another group of volunteer who had just arrived and were going to stay around until the 6am mass. They had more men with them and as such were quite happy to take the rest of my trailmix off of my hands.

We chatted, spotted a bus to take us to Angelique and Melissa’s site, and jumped on. To our amazement, the bus was almost empty. After picking up a few more passengers, we started to leave Caacupe. Then the bus decided to do a 23 point turn, mas o menos, on a small 2 lane, city street, go the opposite direction back into Caacupe, and procided to drive around for about an hour picking up additional passengers until the bus was stuffed. Finally we headed to Coronel Oviedo, arriving around 5:30am.

I caught a few winks of sleep at Melissa’s house then woke up with an allergy induced cough around 7:10am. Realizing that I wasn’t going to get rid of my cough anytime soon, which would needlessly keep both of us up if I stayed at Melissa’s house, I decided to head home. I walked 2k/1.2mi to the bus terminal and bought a ticket home.

I had my first real encounter with a terminal attendant who seemed like he might be in the mood to justify his hiked up ticket price. Silly man, he should know better than to fight testy tired people during Caacupe week, even if I look like a tourist. I gave him 15mil, while he was writing 20 on the ticket, he told me in a very innocent tone of voice that the cost of the ticket was 20mil and acted like he was going to start justifying the price, when I gave him a quick lesson in basic algebrat:

‘No. It is 15 mil to Campo 9. It costs 30 mil from Campo 9 to Asunción and its 15 mil from here [Coronel Oviedo] to Asunción.’

Now I didn’t actually know what the usual price was to C9 was, but I was too tired to care if 15 wasn’t the standard rate. It was fair according to the above calculation and I was not going to pay ningún Guarani más damit!

He gave me my ticket 15 mil ticket without another word and pointed me to a bench where I could sit and wait for the bus.

A while later I got on my bus, and had one last final joy of completely freaking out the lady in the seat next to me by drinking water out of my camelback hose, which was poking out of a hole in my backpack designed specifically for that purpose, thus concealing the water itself. I always feel a bit like a reverse scuba diver when drinking from the mouthpiece.

No comments: